An Elephantine Problem

The common discourse about wildlife conservation in the country persistently revolves around two major streams of thought: the one supported by English news media in angry, gruesome tones is that of man’s unending desire for progress and development destroying landscapes without any regard for sustainable development and social justice; and the other is spearheaded by communal narratives of animal attacks or destruction. The deep dispute between the two often decides our environment laws and their implementation, apart from giving rise to the argument that economic growth is hindered by ecologically sound policy. Recently, five Indian states with a large elephant population have drafted a regional programme for conservation of pachyderms in accordance with the guidelines of the Karnataka High Court (2010). Elephant expert Raman Sukuma explains one of its recommendations, “This plan divides zoning habitats into three zones: areas with large forest cover that is relatively intact where elephants can be conserved, creating elephant-human co-existence zones which will serve as an interface between human settlements and elephants, and elephant removal zones in agricultural areas. These are areas where elephants have now moved in, resulting in increasing conflict. The plan will be to capture the elephants and relocate them to other forest areas which are intact, but if that fails, maybe keep some of the elephants under captivity. The different states have to take a call on this.” Apart from this, many have suggested large-scale measures like setting up electric fences and trenches between forested areas and human habitation, changing land use patterns, clearly defining elephant ‘protected areas’, controlling poaching for ivory, etc. However, interestingly, most of these suggestions stem from statistics of the numbers of humans killed by elephant activity. Rarely do any of them place them against the annual numbers of elephants killed by human activity.

PhD scholar Tarsh Thekaekara, who is studying this phenomenon, explains how we privilege the Judeo-Christian understanding of ‘man’ as the acme of creation. This allows man to utilize all other life forms as he pleases. Having this worldview means that conserving the environment or different flora and fauna is to be read as a compassionate or dutiful act. On the other hand, many indigenous communities believe in existing as a part of nature, by according ‘human-like qualities’ to plants and animals. Sacred groves, in which forested regions are cordoned off from any destruction because they are believed to house divinities, are an example of this level of co-existence. This view gives animals as much right to exist, as it gives to human beings. Despite this fact, government plans tend to subscribe to the previous view, and fail to take individual scenarios into account. Furthermore, elephants are very social, self-aware (can identify themselves in mirrors), altruistic and empathetic, can do basic arithmetic, and have a complex brain structure very similar to that of human beings. Thekaekara recounts a few witness reports of elephants’ instinctive empathy. Once, an elephant smashed a house with a new-born baby inside. It came back to the destroyed house and cleared the debris to extract the baby and protect it. In another account, an elephant accidentally killed one of two bikers speeding towards it. It cradled the corpse and hid it inside its frame, to later cover it up with branches, mud and leaves, almost imitating a burial death ritual. But, there have been incidents of unpredictable attacks as well, such as angry elephants crushing people upon the deaths of their children. These horror stories are circulated frequently to gather mobs, and to try to lynch these animals with makeshift weapons. Lynching, a new and socially legitimate attraction, does not forgive any exploited group- animal and human alike. At the same time, the Central and State governments are forced to pay Rs. 10-15 crore as ex-gratia relief to families affected by elephant destruction.

Even if conservation efforts want to create safer zones for these mammals, one reason why it is difficult to do so is that there is not much space left with our extent of population density- India has approximately 400 people living in every square kilometre of land. Will a country of 1.2 billion (and counting) people prioritising the ‘ease of doing business’ by stressing on the GDP, be able to address the ‘inconvenient questions’ of sustainability and conservation? (Prerna Singh Bindra) Environmental issues must be tackled with a multi-pronged system which includes making preservation a political issue by say, converting it into electoral promises (to insert it into ‘public interest’), providing practical knowledge of conservation at the school and college levels, promoting ecotourism, and using the public-private-partnership (PPP) model of the government forest department collaborating with local private bodies of concerned citizens. Traditional methods of fending off elephants’ crop destruction and other attacks (bee hives, chilly fences, beating drums) vary across regions and communities. Hence, all of them should be incorporated within a larger framework that does not determine standards in an isolating manner, but provides space for indigenous systems of conservation to exist. Thus, conservation needs to be contextualized and practiced variably across space and time. There is no universal solution, but there are multiple individual solutions that we can definitely work on.

– Contributed by Tript

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